I wrote and rewrote the following post pretty much daily over the course of the past few weeks in response to the ugliness happening around video games and women in video games. I finally gave up toward the end of this past week, because I could never find a way to discuss all of this that didn’t seem like it was all about me me me when it all had absolutely nothing to do with me. When Jenn Frank, of all damn people, probably the most heartbreakingly honest writer in the gaming press, was hounded and harassed for supposed corruption of all damn things, I lost the stomach to write about this at all. Or, frankly, to write about the games industry. When I told my wife what had happened to Jenn (whom she knew from the time a few years back when we had over to our place to take part in a disastrous-but-fun 1UP-centric dinner party), she simply started sending me job listings for “less toxic” lines of work. I found her response depressing, but honestly gave it some consideration for a day or two. (I got over it.)
With Zöe Quinn’s Batman-like — or rather, Oracle-like, in a DC universe where Barbara Gordon is forever allowed to define her identity on her own terms than as a sub-franchise of a male hero — exposé of the culprits behind all this crap, the conversation has shifted so radically I’d need to completely rewrite this to make the still-relevant parts feel relevant. Frankly, I’m tired of looking at this wall of text, so I’m just posting the most recent revision (from Wednesday) behind the jump cut in its entirety: A chunk of text vomited from the what-ifs of the Internet. You can pick out the parts that remain relevant, if you like, or you can just ignore it.
(Cliff’s Notes version: That would be the parts about the folly of painting the general gaming audience with too broad a brush because of the actions of a few, and the ethics of crowd-funding.)
Oh, also, I started supporting Quinn on Patreon after she came under attack by anonymous abusers out of sympathy. Now I’m supporting her on Patreon because she basically blew up the Death Star right as the technician in the glossy underbite helmet activated the final turbo laser lever. In any case, I’ve still never met her, still never written about her (outside of this post), and still never will.
Also of note: Since penning the text below, I’ve written about Mighty No. 9, which I helped crowd-fund, with the basic premise of the piece being, “I Kickstarted this game and I’m liking the way it’s shaping up.” I’ve also just backed Tetropolis, a game I wrote about at PAX East and would very much like to play, though sadly it doesn’t look likely to make its goals. If that constitutes corruption, friends, this whole species is going to Hell.
“Everybody loves game journalism.”
Just kidding. Nobody loves games journalism, or games journalists.
I wrote this post last week, back when this was such a hot topic that it was selling Jack Skellington T-shirts on the side, but I was busy traveling up and down the West Coast to visit a bunch of publishers and PR folks
to collect this quarter’s money hats so I wanted to sit and mull this over until I was free of the tyranny of jet lag and a non-stop travel schedule. I’ve seen my name pop up a few times (thanks, Google Alerts) in relation to the latest games journalism scandal — which actually isn’t a scandal so much as a free-for-all shouting match, and only sort of has to do with games journalism — so I might as well contribute to the din a bit.
I keep seeing the abuse that’s been heaped upon women like Zöe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian referred to as “terrorism,” which sadly is true in the literal dictionary sense of the word in a handful of more extreme cases. And, as often happens with terrorism, the response has involved a lot of broad-strokes rhetoric and indiscriminate retaliatory bombing. The lamentations about the awfulness of gamers and game culture (whatever that is) is like a nerdier version of the political posturing that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. To my knowledge, gaming’s ombudsmen don’t have any military hardware lined up to mobilize into gamer culture (I think it’s all tied up in Ferguson at the moment), but the declamations, the generalizations, and the tone of righteous indignation are much the same. A few thousand — or is it a few hundred? — creeps out of a group containing millions are being allowed to color the perception of those millions. This, from many of the same people who bristle when the mainstream media employs the same rhetoric about the same group.
And they’re not entirely wrong; the vileness that’s bubbled to the surface over the past few weeks are the result of problems that exist at the system level. Not just the system that creates games, either, but the broader system that props up culture and pop culture alike. Still, the overwhelming majority of people within that system manage not to degenerate into gynophobic monsters who terrify women out of their homes for saying, “Maybe it would be good if women were treated with respect,” so cheers to the fundamentally indefatigable decency of human nature and all that. The awful voices are loud, but they’re a minority, and I hate that they’re being met with equally strident rhetoric. If game enthusiasts didn’t already hate the gaming press, they certainly do now that they’ve been unilaterally lumped into the same group as a handful of noisy hatemongers.
I’ve stayed out of the conversation over the past couple of weeks, not because I don’t care, but because nothing I could say could accomplish anything positive. No one’s minds are going to be changed about anything by any words I could write on such a vast and emotional issue. Instead, I’ve been doing the same thing I’ve taken to doing lately when people are turned into Internet punching bags: Offering quiet support. In the case of Quinn, I decided to start contributing to her Patreon after all this nonsense began. Unfortunately, the fact that some people in the press are backing Quinn helped precipitate the anti-Quinn contingent’s decision to turn this whole thing into a discussion of game journalism ethics. Of course, in some cases, the question of game journalism ethics is simply an excuse for less savory behavior, so the whole thing is depressingly muddy and has only increased the amount of shouting involved.
One thing to emerge from all of this is the question of whether or not it’s acceptable or appropriate for members of the games press to support game developers through crowd funding ventures like Kickstarter and Patreon. Kotaku responded by taking a scorched-earth approach that forbids their writers from having anything to do with games-related crowd funding. I have a lot of respect for Kotaku EIC Stephen Totilo, but after giving it a few days’ thought, I just can’t agree with that decision at all.
I actually wrestled publicly with the same question a year ago when I hosted the PAX panel in which Keiji Inafune announced Mighty No. 9, a game I intended to Kickstart for several hundred dollars. (I ended up dialing it down to a much lower amount, so my pledge basically amounted to a preorder of the game and an art book; I opted not to participate materially in the game’s design.) Given my — unwitting! — involvement in the game’s announcement and my financial commitment to it, I mused, would it be improper for me to write about Mighty No. 9, even though, no offense to any of them, no one on USgamer’s staff knows the Mega Man series on which MN9 is based anywhere near as well as I do? Ideally, you want the best-qualified person reviewing a game, but at what point does that enthusiasm become a disqualifier?
It’s a weird situation. Crowd-funding makes you a participant in the creation of a work, but at the same time you have no stake in the finished product aside from declaring whether or not you got your money’s worth. You’re not going to reap dividends from the completed project (as Oculus Rift backers discovered to their chagrin when Facebook made Oculus very, very wealthy, but Oculus backers got bupkis); basically, you’re putting your payment up front as a sort of stake to help ensure the product is created, and then you get your product and rewards, and that’s it. Still, it is participatory, even if it’s mostly in a symbolic way.
For me, crowd-funding has largely replaced my former habits as a consumer. I used to buy every game that came down the pipeline if it vaguely interested me, out of a feeling of obligation to keep the B-tier of the medium thriving. If I supported the games I believed in with my wallet, I reasoned, even if I never intended to play them, publishers would continue to make them — right? Obviously, that turned out to be a complete fallacy; the kinds of games I truly love have largely dried up and vanished outside of the indie space, so it turns out I spent thousands of dollars on games I never had time to play for no reason. But Kickstarter and Indiegogo and Patreon are different — if people like me put money there, those kinds of games will be made. Probably. It’s a sure thing, provided you pledge for trustworthy people and the campaign in question makes its goal. I see crowd-funding simply as a way to support niche content that interests me in a far more effective fashion than in the past.
As for Patreon in particular, that’s something I’ve only begun contributing to since launching my own Patreon campaign a couple of months ago. Because a bunch of generous people have been supporting me as I try to create articles and videos about video games that are entirely too niche to justify for my day job — seriously, if I tried to run a comprehensive chronology of Game Boy releases in text and video form at USgamer, I’d be out of work in no time flat — I feel a strong moral obligation to pay it forward and use some of those contributions to support other independent content creators in turn. But since I work in the press, some people question whether or not I’m somehow compromised by these things.
Personally, I disagree with that notion. I mean, I backed both Discord Games’ Chasm and Gamesbymo’s A.N.N.E. for the price of a preorder, because both were games that immediately struck a chord with me, and I wanted to play them. A.N.N.E. is basically The Guardian Legend. I am pretty sure I name-drop The Guardian Legend more than any other person in the gaming press (I did it in last week’s USgamer cover story, for god’s sake), so the opportunity to play a contemporary take on the concept really appealed to me.
Because I backed these games, I won’t be reviewing them, even though I am extraordinarily well-suited to take a critical look at both and discuss their respective successes or failures. But I did write about them at PAX East, under the auspices of a preview article where I said, “I backed these games — how are they shaping up?” Is it a conflict of interest to write about a game I eagerly await simply because I paid for it (speculatively) in advance, especially if I state up-front that I’d done so in my write-up? I’ve always done my best to be aboveboard with everything I do professionally, and this is no different.
My Kickstarter history and Patreon pledges are no secret — anyone can view those pages. I’ve written about a few of the games I’ve backed, but I’ve always tried to be completely open about my support up-front. I haven’t reviewed any of those games, and I never will. I’ll never write professionally about the people and projects I support on Patreon, either.
That mention of Patreon brings us back to the Quinn incident, because a few people spotted my pledge and read something sinister into it (even though I made the pledge in response to those people’s actions). Honestly, I don’t know the woman; we’ve never even met. I don’t run in the hip indie game circles and have zero interest in doing so. Having officially reached middle-age at this point I’m much more interested in tracking down Japanese guys my own age who worked on old games no one else cares about than in the younger man’s game that is keeping up with the new wave of game developers; that’s for the young folks on USgamer’s staff to do. I’ve never played the game Quinn created, and to be completely honest I probably never will — the subject matter sounds too intense for my escapist tastes and covers a topic I’ve seen way too much of in real life to find entertainment in. I’ve never written about Quinn’s work, and I don’t foresee myself doing so at any point in the future. I simply saw a creator whose life was, by all reasonable accounts, unfairly torn apart by a group of strangers and felt that backing that person’s work would be a good and moral thing to do. I know how encouraging it can be when people support me, and wanted to give someone else that same positivity. I intend to contribute to other Patreons, too, as the occasion warrants — other people whose work I like, or just people whom I feel deserve support in general. I only started using Patreon a short while ago, and I’ve slowly been adding to my portfolio of causes, one or two per month.
Of course, these motives and thought processes don’t appear on my Patreon history page, as Google Alerts made me realize when people started posting all kinds of exotic conspiracy theories about my history with Quinn (which they don’t seem to realize begins and ends with “I have heard of her game Depression Quest and saw her mentioned an awful lot on Twitter over the past few weeks”). I want to avoid appearance of impropriety, but at the same time I’m someone whose own passion projects are only possible because people support me, be it via Patreon or last year’s Retronauts Kickstarter or even the old-school days of a “donate” button on this blog.
I’ve always felt that I have a serious obligation to reciprocate that support, and Patreon is simply the latest means for doing so. It used to take the form of an Amazon Payments link or simply buying things from people’s personal web stores; I own a hefty stack of self-published webcomic collections I don’t really care about anymore as a result of this habit. And I want to continue funding projects that interest me on Kickstarter, even if that means I don’t get to review them. Given a choice between “helping make intriguing games possible and not being able to review them due to the appearance of conflict of interest” or “never helping make intriguing games possible and not being able to review them because the project went un-funded,” the former seems a lot more appealing.
In my experience, people can compartmentalize their lives between “work” and “personal.” As long as a writer is transparent about it all, no ethics have been injured. I love the work I do, but I also hold a strong moral conviction to do my part to help support others in the way that I’ve been supported through the years. I feel I shouldn’t have to choose between “making a living” or “being able to live with myself.” Though so far my employers have made no official stance on all of this. If they say, “Put the kibosh on it,” I’ll make a decision, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, you know? As a philosopher once said, only Sith deal in absolutes.